Romney's beach house

Mitt Romney plans to tear down his beachfront house in La Jolla and build a much larger one, including a car elevator. Neighbors' feelings are mixed. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times / May 15, 2012)

LA JOLLA -- David and Cristina Sear were walking their Doberman pinschers in this seaside neighborhood when a big U-Haul truck pulled up around the corner from the $12-million beachfront home Mitt and Ann Romney had just bought.

The driver could not negotiate the steep turn onto Dunemere Drive, a narrow cul-de-sac with no sidewalks.

"Wouldn't it be funny if Mitt Romney jumped out?" they joked, moments before Romney jumped out of the driver's side of the cab.

"We probably talked for 15 or 20 minutes," David Sear, a financial advisor, recalled recently. "We welcomed him and cautioned him that it was a blue neighborhood. He introduced me to his son Matt, and told me that he had quite a bit of fine art that he was uncomfortable having shipped, so he thought he and his son would spend some father-son time and go on a road trip from Utah to La Jolla."

Since that day a few years ago, the Romneys have become intermittently familiar sights around La Jolla. They have been spotted in shops along Girard Avenue in the Village shopping area; at the Jewel Salon, where Mitt got a $25 haircut in near anonymity; in local restaurants; and at Vons, where real estate agent Sue Nystrom Walsh bumped into Mitt a couple of times.

"He was very nice," she said. "It wasn't any big deal."

Though the Romneys are associated with several states -- Michigan, where they grew up; Massachusetts, where he was governor; New Hampshire, where they own a magnificent lakeside retreat; and Utah, where he led the 2002 Winter Olympics -- the family has multigenerational, if less well known, connections to California.

The presumed Republican presidential nominee spent his freshman year at Stanford, where in 1966 he picketed against a sit-in by demonstrators who opposed the draft.

His mother, the former Lenore LaFount, appeared as a bit player in several Hollywood films and nearly signed an MGM contract that could have paid $50,000 before she was wooed into domesticity by future Michigan Gov. George Romney, whom she met in high school.

In her brief Hollywood career, she was a stand-in for Lily Damita in 1931's "Fifty Million Frenchmen" and played a "chic French girl" in a Greta Garbo film and an "ingenue" in another 1931 film, "A Tailor Made Man," George Romney biographer T. George Harris wrote.

Stung at the thought of losing her, the elder Romney asked his employer, Alcoa, to transfer him to Los Angeles, where he also took night classes at USC, according to Harris, and picked her up at the studio each night.

She didn't like the seedy side of Hollywood and didn't want to have to pose for the cheesecake shots the studio required. But mostly, she fretted for George's male ego. "He'd come out there and didn't want to be known as my date," she told Harris. "In an acting career, I would have been upstaging him, and he couldn't stand that."

One of Mitt's older sisters, Jane Romney, 74, who lives in Beverly Hills and has earned modest success as an actress, said her mother was "unprepared for Hollywood. She was young and raised in a very moral family, and Hollywood was pretty dicey in those days."

In a brief interview, she recalled seeing her mother's screen test when she was a teenager. "She was so very kind of dreamy and wonderful," Jane said.

According to family lore, Jane said, George Romney "followed her out from the East Coast on his white horse and talked her into not signing the contract." She added: "He tried to save me from Hollywood, too, but he wasn't successful." (Jane Romney, who donated $250 to Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California in 1997, has supported her Republican brother's presidential campaign, giving $2,500 in 2011 and $2,100 in 2008.)

George Romney told The Times in 1964 when he was governor of Michigan that he felt at home in Los Angeles because he attended kindergarten there and "had started housekeeping with his wife in Santa Monica." Harris, the biographer, wrote that the Romneys rented a house in downtown Los Angeles, at 21st and Main streets.

The family's more contemporary California connections include a stint by Mitt Romney's eldest son, Tagg, as chief marketing officer for the Dodgers. He left after a season to work on his father's first presidential campaign in 2007.

Two other sons, Matt and Craig, live 20 minutes inland from La Jolla near Rancho Bernardo, where their million-dollar-plus homes are nestled on private streets with heavy wooden gates that bar outsiders. Matt is an executive with Excel Trust, a publicly traded real estate investment trust in San Diego that focuses on retail centers, according to its website. Craig once worked as music producer for a New York ad agency but is now in real estate.

The Romney campaign did not allow any of the Romneys or their associates to speak to The Times about any aspect of the family's life in California. A Romney spokeswoman had asked for a list of questions, and then sent back a statement: "Gov. and Mrs. Romney enjoy the time they are able to spend in California and enjoy spending time with family and friends there. When they are in California, Mrs. Romney takes the opportunity to ride horses as much as possible."

Their home is in the Barber Tract, developed in the 1930s and known for its "storybook" cottages that sit "cheek-by-jowl," as local historian Carol Olten put it. "It's one of our more ideal neighborhoods."